Minister of State for Primary Care, Deputy Alex White (Lab), is to bring concrete proposals to the Cabinet next week on long awaited legislation to curb alcohol abuse.
The junior minister at the Department of Health told this newspaper that he intends to go ahead with proposals that include plans to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol products and “significant measures” to curb corporate sponsorship in sport.
Last year, Minister White’s predecessor, Labour Party colleague Roisin Shortall TD, drafted proposals for Government that included minimum prices for alcohol products and the phasing out of sports sponsorship by drinks companies.
The proposals proved a source of division between the coalition parties as some of Deputy Shortall’s coalition colleagues in Fine Gael strongly opposed the plans.
Deputy Shortall eventually resigned last September following the controversy over how Health Minister James Reilly added two primary care centres in his Dublin North constituency to a list of locations being considered by the State.
Minister White said the proposals he intends to present to Cabinet on curbing alcohol abuse will be based upon those initiated by Deputy Shortall last year.
“The proposals that Roisin Shortall had put together in a draft memo are the proposals that I am still working on,” he said. “The most important ones for me are price, access, by which I mean access to alcohol in retail stores and how it’s presented, where it is presented in the store and the extent to which it is separated from other products.
“I am certainly in favour of minimum pricing and it will feature in the proposals. Then there are issues with marketing and sponsorship. We have significant proposals to make in each of those different areas.
“The biggest concern is marketing that is visible to children and young people,” he added.
Minister White also insisted that universal free GP care would be introduced within the lifetime of the Government.
“The first phase is going to be the introduction of a GP visit card for people who suffer from chronic illnesses and we plan to introduce that this year,” he continued.
He also believes that it would be another two years before the Government is able to deliver new primary care centres under the proposed Public Private Partnership model.
A list of 35 potential locations for primary care centres has been identified by the Minister for Health, James Reilly. Of these, 20 will be commissioned subject to agreement between local GPs and the HSE. One of the centres is planned for the Knocklyon/Rathfarnham area.
“We are hoping to get the primary care centres that are on the list into the procurement phase later this summer and move them on,” he explained. “It will probably take another two years before they are actually built.”
On another issue not linked to the health portfolio but which is hugely controversial within his own constituency of Dublin South, the minister said he supported his Cabinet colleague and Justice Minister, Alan Shatter’s, decision to close Stepaside Garda station.
Hundreds of protesters were due to attend a demonstration against the closure at the Garda station last Sunday (February 3).
“It is understandable that people would be upset by the closure of Stepaside station,” Minister White said. “The fact is though that alternative plans have been put in place, and as I understand it, the commissioner has told the local community how it will work.
“I think it is much more viable that we have gardai available in terms of mobile units in communities,” he suggested. “If there is a problem in any area and you call the guards, it is no longer a question of local guards coming to the station to your aid. It is going to be a mobile patrol that is out and about.”